Halloween bedevils some U.S. churches

Every weekend in October through Halloween, thousands of people converge on this rural town to take a trip down the Tribulation Trail.

The wooded path behind Metro Heights Baptist Church leads them through scenes of a battleground in Iraq, to a world ruled by the devil and to a meeting with Christ, who invites Christians into heaven and sends sinners to hell.

As in a typical haunted house, the scenes are scary and graphic. Though the trail is centered on Halloween, it is not meant to celebrate the holiday. The trail and a growing number of events like it are meant as an alternative to Halloween--as a depiction of real-life wickedness.

Some evangelical Christians have waged a battle for two decades to erase Halloween from American culture, saying the observance glorifies evil. The debate on whether Halloween is a secular or religious event has received renewed energy this year because it falls on a Sunday.

Christians across the country, particularly in the Bible Belt, have flooded local government offices with requests to forbid Sunday celebrations or move them to Saturday so they won't conflict with the Sabbath.

"It's a demonic spirit day," said Deborah Griggs, 36, of Newnan, Ga., who does not allow her three boys to celebrate Halloween. "God should get the glory on Sunday and Saturday as well. Halloween should be canceled altogether."

Halloween has its roots in Europe in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, during which it was believed ghosts of the dead revisited Earth. When Christianity took over and All Saints' Day (or Allhallows) was set on Nov. 1, the night before that became known as Allhallows Eve, or Halloween.

Commercial success

In modern times, the holiday has been transformed into a highly commercialized event in this country, celebrated by children and adults and generating more than $7 billion a year. For most people, it is simply a day or night of fun and a cause to dress up in silly costumes.

But many Christians, as well as some Jews and Muslims, choose not to observe Halloween because it conflicts with their religious values. Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, has said they should "close Halloween down" and that children who dress up as witches are "acting out Satanic rituals."

The issue rose to the forefront in the 1980s with the return of evangelicals to the political arena, and became a part of the broader movement dealing with school prayer and abortion, said Charles Haynes, senior scholar for the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

"Some evangelical and conservative parents asked, `If we can't have Jesus in [the schools] in December, why can we have witches and ghosts in October?' They see it as a religious issue, but it does not have much of a legal basis," Haynes said.

"No court is likely to see the secular use of ghost or witch images as a religious imposition," he said. "But that does not mean it's right to do it. Halloween has become a big public-relations issue, especially in schools. And districts that have the least problems have learned to compromise."

While city officials have not tried to legally dictate when Halloween celebrations can be held, many municipalities, such as Bowling Green, Ky.; Phenix City, Ala.; and Grand Rapids, Mich., have responded to the pleas of residents and made it clear that Saturday is the preferred day.

In Columbus, Ga., Mayor Bob Poydasheff got several such requests and announced during a City Council meeting that residents should consider celebrating on Saturday rather than Sunday.

"The mayor felt it would be a good thing to encourage people, without mandating anything, because many churches in the community have services on Sunday evening," said Ed Wilson, the mayor's assistant. "We wanted to avoid a conflict."

Theologians say there is no single perspective on Halloween, but some Christians see the observance as a tribute to paganism and the devil. The anti-Halloween movement has attracted a large following, particularly in the South, the cradle of the fundamentalist evangelical movement.

"The more rigorous fundamentalists seem to have the most concern that Halloween affirms the reality of the devil and Satan," said Charles Lippy, a religious studies professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Separating fantasy, reality

"One of the problems is that adults may have more of a problem than the children in separating reality from fantasy," Lippy said. "Kids who dress up as princesses or devils seem to know full well that is not who they are, and that it is a game and exercise in imagination."

For years, some Christians have lobbied schools to discontinue Halloween parties, and when they refused, they kept their children home from the events. On Halloween night, they stayed inside with their porch lights off and their curtains closed, signaling to trick-or-treaters that they were unwelcome.

But in recent years, religious opponents of Halloween have become more active. Many schools and churches hold harvest festivals as an alternative to Halloween parties. Many families have decided to open their doors to trick-or-treaters, but along with the candy, they hand out religious tracts, little pamphlets that teach children about Christ. More than 3,000 "hell houses" like Tribulation Trail have sprung up across the country.

The idea of scary but faith-based alternatives to haunted houses took root in the 1970s at Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Liberty's event, called ScareMare, presents frightening scenes of death to pose the religious question: "What will happen when you die?"

The "hell house" idea has grown in popularity despite criticism of graphic portrayals of people dying of AIDS, abortions, gang shootings, drunken drivers and teenage suicide. On Tribulation Trail, there is a large picture of singers Britney Spears and Madonna kissing as one example of the decline of family values.

The idea of alternative haunted houses has been promoted in recent years by Keenan Roberts, who created "Hell House" near Denver in 1995 and began marketing it to other religious organizations across the country. Several churches now sell kits.

"There was a lot of heat in the 1990s, but some of our critics just ran out of gas. We have not changed one thing about how we go about what we feel needs to be communicated," said Roberts, pastor of Destiny Church of the Assemblies of God in Northglenn, Colo.

"We tell people that sin always brings about devastating results. But when you get tired of sin, Jesus is there knocking on the door waiting to forgive you," he said.

At the end of the Tribulation Trail, counselors are available to talk to those who want to learn more. A minister prays for the group and hands out Bibles. Sometimes, volunteers said, people's lives are changed.

"The devil has a counterpart for everything God does. Halloween is one of them," said Elaine Law, 45, who volunteers as a counselor. "We are here until 1 a.m. If we can save one person, it's worth it."